The art of dealing with toxic team members.
It’s harvest time. The crops are coming in from the field, but among those yields, there are also unwanted things. But what happens when there is “chaff” among the “wheat”? When we look at the people in our organizations and within the teams, it’s also important that we have only “wheat” here. Unfortunately, the reality is different. A successful team is essential for growth, progress, and even continuity. Attracting and retaining talented employees is a continuous challenge for any business. But what if some of those employees behave like a toxic presence in the organization, leaving others frustrated and misunderstood? This problem is not just a matter of individual conflicts but has far-reaching consequences for the entire corporate culture.
In this long read, I will take you through the complex task of identifying and dealing with toxic employees who sometimes engage in silent sabotage or even open protest. I will delve deeper into the impact of their behavior on team productivity and morale, and how these situations can lead to a general atmosphere of frustration and misunderstanding. Employees come in all shapes and sizes. This can range from excellent team players to those who exert a negative influence on their colleagues and the overall corporate culture. A “toxic employee” refers to those individuals who systematically exhibit destructive behavior, undermining the harmony and productivity of the team.
Toxic employees are not just employees having a bad day; they exhibit a constant pattern of behavior that is harmful to others and the organization.
Toxic employees are not just employees having a bad day; they exhibit a constant pattern of behavior that is harmful to others and the organization. This behavior can range from open hostility and negativity to subtle manipulation and gossip. Recognizing unwanted behavior is crucial to be able to intervene quickly and limit the harmful consequences for the team and the organization. Here are some specific signs and symptoms of toxic behavior in the workplace that you, as a manager, colleague, or HR professional, can observe:
- Constant criticism: Toxic employees often have a tendency to constantly make negative comments about colleagues, projects, or the organization itself. They often only talk about mistakes and repeatedly emphasize them.
They often package the criticism with comments like: “I don’t want to be negative, but it’s a fact that…”
- Inhibiting factor: Due to excessive perfectionism, they can be an inhibiting factor. They may consciously strive for unrealistic perfection in their work, causing delays and frustration for the rest of the team.
“It has to be done right,” “That’s not good at all.” This disguised form of sabotage often goes unnoticed.
- Refusal to collaborate: They are not willing to collaborate with others and can create obstacles to project progress. They often exhibit a “every man for himself” mentality. Another form of not wanting to collaborate is withholding information. Toxic employees can keep crucial information to themselves or deliberately slow it down, delaying project progress.
These obstacles are often packaged as so-called business “concerns” or substantive micromanagement. Usually followed by a request for more information, more time to think, or more budget.
- Gossip and rumors: Toxic employees are notorious for their ability to gossip and spread rumors behind others’ backs. This can lead to division within the team and mistrust among colleagues.
Do you recognize opening lines like: “I’m not discriminating, but…” or “I don’t want to get involved, but…”
- Avoidance of responsibility: They are reluctant to take responsibility for their own mistakes and failures. They can blame others or find excuses to justify themselves.
Changing roles and responsibilities. When making a mistake, not keeping appointments, or being late, they may say that it’s not a big deal. “It’s not a big deal that I’m late; it can happen to anyone.”
- Disregard for company rules: They often ignore company rules, policies, and ethical standards. This can range from minor violations to serious breaches of the corporate culture.
It seems as if the general rules and agreements do not apply to them. “I know it’s not allowed, but I…” or simply pretending not to know anything. Toxic employees can openly criticize management, policies, or colleagues in meetings, through emails, or on social media.
- Negativity and pessimism: Toxic employees tend to create a negative atmosphere by constantly being pessimistic. They rarely want to see the positive side of situations and contribute to a general sense of gloominess.
They can express their dissatisfaction through passive-aggressive comments, non-verbal signals, or indirect actions, such as ignoring colleagues’ requests.
- Inappropriate humor: They often make offensive or demeaning comments under the guise of humor, which can hurt others and make them feel uncomfortable.
“I can make a joke, can’t I?” or “People shouldn’t be so sensitive” are possible reactions when addressing a toxic person’s inappropriate behavior.
It is important to know that not all negativity in the workplace indicates toxic behavior.
It is important to know that not all negativity in the workplace indicates toxic behavior. People can naturally be critical of their environment, their tasks, or the way things are done. But when they are critical and also come up with a possible solution, they are not necessarily toxic employees. Sometimes, employees may be going through a difficult period or experiencing stress, which can cause temporary changes in behavior. Therefore, it is crucial to observe these signals over a period and look for repeated behavior that is harmful to the work environment.
The behavior of toxic employees can stem from various sources of dissatisfaction. These can be personal frustrations, such as unfulfilled ambitions or conflicts with colleagues. It can also be related to broader organizational issues, such as a lack of communication, lack of recognition, or a sense of injustice. Some employees behave this way as an expression of powerlessness, trying to draw attention to their dissatisfaction when they feel unheard or misunderstood. Others may act out of self-interest, prioritizing personal goals over those of the team or the organization. Try to determine why some employees become frustrated and feel misunderstood. Some possibilities include:
- Lack of recognition: When employees do not feel valued for their contributions, they can become frustrated.
- Unclear expectations: If employees do not understand what is expected of them, it can lead to frustration and confusion.
- Limited growth opportunities: Employees who feel there are no opportunities for professional growth and development can become frustrated and feel misunderstood.
- Jealousy and envy: When they see others receiving opportunities in their eyes, jealousy can also be an issue.
- Poor team dynamics: Conflicts within the team, especially when left unaddressed, can lead to frustration and feelings of being misunderstood.
Once these signals are identified, your organization can implement effective strategies to deal with toxic behavior and promote a healthier, more productive work environment. These strategies can range from coaching and mentoring to the implementation of clear policies to address negative behavior.
Not only toxic leaders are detrimental to the organization; toxic employees also cause just as much harm!
Toxicity in the workplace often manifests by creating an atmosphere of unrest and tension. These employees can obstruct collaboration, withhold information, and intentionally make mistakes to sabotage others, leading to inefficiency and reduced team productivity. This puts additional pressure on the team, which can lead to higher absenteeism, as employees experience stress and negative emotions, ultimately resulting in emotional exhaustion and physical health problems. This additional pressure in an unpleasant atmosphere also affects the retention of valuable employees. The presence of toxic colleagues can poison the work climate, causing high-performing employees to leave the organization. This loss of expertise and experience can harm the organization in the long run. Quality, morale, and job satisfaction spiral downward into demotivation and dissatisfaction. Think of it like the game “Jenga,” where more and more blocks disappear from the tower, making it unstable and eventually causing it to collapse.
It is of paramount importance for organizations to take the negative impact of toxic employees seriously and take action to minimize the aforementioned negative effects. This does not mean immediately showing them the door as individuals, but it does mean addressing their behavior. The goal is to ultimately eliminate negative behavior.
It is clear that separating the wheat from the chaff is a crucial step for any organization striving for growth and success. By recognizing the signs of toxic behavior, addressing silent sabotage and open protest, reducing frustration and misunderstanding, and eliminating rude behavior, organizations can thrive in a healthy work environment. It is time to focus on the positive employees and take a stand so that they receive all the energy they need to flourish. We must remove the negativity that drains all the energy from the organization and colleagues as quickly as possible. Take a clear position to reward the positive, thereby automatically giving the negative side what it deserves.
Have a great day!
Do you have difficulty taking the right position with your team regarding negative influences? Or would you like to reflect on your team situation and the balance between understaffing or continuing with toxic employees? Contact me today, and together we will find a solution that suits you and makes you more future-proof.
More about group dynamics and change in
the blocks (chapters) positioning, advising and evaluating in our book Cement (in Dutch)
Edwin is not just a visionary expressed through his longreads, but also adept at conveying his ideas through presentations and real-world client interactions. He is a lover of Scandinavia and that's noticeable. Through an array of examples and metaphors, his infectious enthusiasm becomes a catalyst for inspiring, motivating, and fostering connections among individuals. Collaborating closely with his wife and partner, Mirjam, Edwin leads individuals through periods of change. Their shared mission revolves around forging impactful connections – connections that ignite leadership inspiration, foster team cohesion, and catalyze organizational transformation.
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Cement describes the indispensable element of well-functioning teams: connection. While keeping a close eye on the 9 essential building blocks.
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An audiobook of it will be accessible in English starting from the autumn of 2023.
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